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William Graham Sumner on free trade as another aspect of individual liberty (1888)

The American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) argues that free trade is not just a “theory” but another aspect or “mode” of the broader movement for liberty:

Now free trade is not a theory in any sense of the word. It is only a mode of liberty; one form of the assault (and therefore negative) which the expanding intelligence of the present is making on the trammels which it has inherited from the past. … Free trade is a revolt, a conflict, a reform, a reaction and recuperation of the body politic, just as free conscience, free worship, free speech, free press, and free soil have been. It is in no sense a theory.

Now free trade is not a theory in any sense of the word. It is only a mode of liberty; one form of the assault (and therefore negative) which the expanding intelligence of the present is making on the trammels which it has inherited from the past. Inside the United States, absolute free trade exists over a continent. No one thinks of it or realizes it. No one “feels” it. We feel only constraint and oppression. If we get liberty we reflect on it only so long as the memory of constraint endures. I have again and again seen the astonishment with which people realized the fact when presented to them that they have been living under free trade all their lives and never thought of it. When the whole world shall obtain and enjoy free trade there will be nothing more to be said about it; it will disappear from discussion and reflection; it will disappear from the text-books on political economy as the chapters on slavery are disappearing; it will be as strange for men to think that they might not have free trade as it would be now for an American to think that he might not travel in this country without a passport, or that there ever was a chance that the soil of our western states might be slave soil and not free soil. It would be as reasonable to apply the word theory to the protestant reformation, or to law reform, or to anti-slavery, or to the separation of church and state, or to popular rights, or to any other campaign in the great struggle which we call liberty and progress, as to apply it to free trade. The pro-slavery men formerly did apply it to abolition, and with excellent reason, if the use of it which I have criticised ever was correct; for it required great power of realizing in imagination the results of social change, and great power to follow and trust abstract reasoning, for any man bred under slavery to realize, in advance of experiment, the social and economic gain to be won—most of all for the whites—by emancipation. It now requires great power of “theoretical conception” for people who have no experience of the separation of church and state to realize its benefits and justice. Similar observations would hold true of all similar reforms. Free trade is a revolt, a conflict, a reform, a reaction and recuperation of the body politic, just as free conscience, free worship, free speech, free press, and free soil have been. It is in no sense a theory.

About this Quotation:

William Graham Sumner was not only a founder of American sociology but an ardent free trader. He wrote an important history of tariffs in America as well as popular works on free trade for newspapers. In his book Protectionism: the -ism which teaches that waste makes wealth (1888) was written at a time when free trade was under attack, when it was rejected by “practical”men of business and politics who dismissed it as “mere theory.” Interestingly, Bastiat was met with the same criticism by protectionists 40 years earlier (see his article “Theory and Practice” (c. 1845). In this passage Sumner makes two important points. Firstly, that critics of free trade already live in a large country which has complete freedom of trade within its borders, hence he accuses them of hypocrisy for not arguing for tariff barriers between the states. Secondly, for not appreciating the fact that the free trade movement is like other historical movements for individual liberty such as for freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the abolition of slavery. If free trade was only “mere theory”, then so were all these other movements which have greatly improved the lives of human beings.

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